The Key to Bastille Day

Happy Bastille Day!  (Or for you true francophiles, happy la Fête nationale!)  Just outside of Washington, D.C. lies George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, a widely popular student travel destination.   Not only is it a treasure of American History, but also our connection to this French national holiday.  

As you enter the central hallway of Mount Vernon, a large but simple iron key hangs inside of a gold-framed glass case.  It would be easy to pass without a thought, unless the history was known…

At 19 years old the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman and officer in the King’s army, chartered his own ship and sailing crew from France to arrive in America.  The year was 1777.  America was in the midst of a revolution against England and Lafayette was prepared to offer his services to the revolutionaries.  

It was months earlier that Lafayette, whose full name was (big deep breath) Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, (‘Marquis’ was his title) was part of a dinner conversation about the uprising in America and the American Declaration of Independence.  In that conversation he first heard of George Washington and his courageous little army fighting for liberty.  He wrote after the encounter: “When I heard of American Independence, my heart enlisted.”  

When he landed in America (South Carolina!) the American Congress was more dismissive than accepting.  But Lafayette began to change their minds with a letter stating that he would serve at his own expense and as a volunteer, despite his military rank in France.  He would eventually become a General in the American Continental Army, distinguish himself as a soldier and person, impress everyone with his humility and be welcomed by George Washington as a son.  Following American victory he returned to France as a hero and would play a pivotal role in his own country’s revolution. 

On July 14th, 1789, revolutionaries in France, emboldened and encouraged by the American Revolution, stormed the Bastille – a french state prison and long a symbol of royal despotism – releasing all 7 prisoners and signaling the start of the French Revolution.  

The key that opened the Bastille prison that day?  Well, that became the symbol of liberty to French revolutionaries, the very cause for which they fought, and it was entrusted to one of the most popular and trusted men, the Marquis de Lafayette.  But Lafayette believed that a key of that symbolic importance should only be entrusted to one man: George Washington.  And so he shipped the key to President Washington in 1790 and after years of public display, Washington brought it with him to his home in Virginia, where it hangs today for all visitors to admire.  

If you’re planning a student travel program to Washington, D.C., consider adding a stop at Mount Vernon to see this piece of history and testament to friendship for yourself! 

Fantastic French Connection Facts: 

  • Lafayette named his son George Washington Lafayette and one of his daughters Virginia (the state in which Mount Vernon lies)
  • Of all the names for the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington called him Gilbert
  • Lafayette’s father was killed in a war fighting against the British
  • In 1824 Lafayette sailed again to America, arriving to a hero’s welcome.  While at Mount. Vernon, he was known to be caught up with emotion when he saw the Bastille key hanging on the wall 
  • While the start of the revolution is commonly known to be Bastille Day, July 14th in France is often referred to as la fete nationale or La Fete de la Federation (Festival of the Federation), France’s celebration of the end of absolutism and the beginning of the Constitutional Monarchy.  And while France’s national day has changed half a dozen times in its history, for the last century and a half it has been on July 14th and celebrated much like our July 4th with ample pomp and parade.

Vive la France! Vive la Liberté!

With degrees in history and a background in education, tour guiding, and travel, Tim Smith serves as the Lead Guide for Global Travel Alliance and Global Guide contributor.

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